Mal Harris Passions

Mal Harris: The Automobile as Art

The Elegant Legacy of Carrozzeria Touring


By Malcolm Harris


When I was in high school I became an avid reader of Road & Track magazine and became fascinated with the elegance of classic Italian automobiles. This fascination increased as I spent most of the summer of 1964 in Italy, and was stationed there with the Navy in 1968 and 69.

Over the years, this passion developed into a serious hobby, as I restored eight Alfa Romeos, transforming them from basket cases into prize-winning automobiles . I have edited and published four books on Alfa Romeo cars of the 1930s and have served as a judge for 17 years at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the world’s premiere show for beautifully restored automobiles.

I would like to share some of that passion with you, by showing you a series of photographs of some of my favorite Alfa Romeo cars from the 1930s, all of which have a common denominator: their bodies were designed and built by the pre-eminent Italian coachbuilder of that period, Carrozzeria Touring. [photos of Touring logo] These cars have all become iconic milestones in the history of automobile design and will, I believe, eventually be recognized as being among the greatest objects of art from the 20th Century.

If you ordered a high end automobile between 1925 and 1950, this is what you got: [picture of chassis]. You then had to take the chassis to a coachbuilder who would design and construct a body for the car. Much like buying a piece of land and then working with an architect to design a house for it. Many coachbuilding houses thrived in Europe and the US during that period and they were actively engaged in the tandem artistic endeavors of imaginative design and exquisite craftsmanship. [show Touring badge]

Coachbuilders vigorously competed with each other by showing their latest designs to the public at competitive shows called a Concorso d’Eleganza (in Italian) or a Concours d’Elegance (in French) — a “Display of Elegance.” These shows have survived today for the display of newly restored cars.

So, let’s go back in time to the 1930s and review some of the fabulous designs created by Carrozzeria Touring for various Alfa Romeo cars produced during that decade.

[photo of Pozzo car]   It is now 1931 and we are at the famous Hotel Villa d’Este at Lake Como, which was the venue for the premiere Concorso event in Italy. This is Signorina Josette Pozzo, driving her new Alfa Romeo 1750 with an elegant Touring body called the “Flying Star” – a one-off design that is perhaps the most beautiful Italian car of the early 1930’s. [point out some details and the art deco theme]. This car is still alive and well and will be shown at the Pebble Beach Concours this summer.

Now let’s go to 1934 and here is an Alfa 2300 spider. This car was generally recognized as the “supercar” of the early 1930s. Only 188 chassis were made and Touring built the bodies for about one third of them. [point out design details and “fin” on the back]

[slide of Mozart 2300]   Here is the car that I remember most from the early days of this passion. I cut a full page photo of this car out of Road & Track in about 1956, and it was on the wall in my bedroom for many years. [Discuss the car’s “rebody” design.]

From 1937 to 1940, Alfa built the greatest car in its history, the 8C2900. 42 chassis were built and 35 were bodied by Touring. They were thinly-disguised race cars, utilizing the same engines and chassis used in Alfa’s Grand Prix racing cars of the period. [show coachbuilder drawing ] And here is the reality. [show photos] Most knowledgeable automobile collectors would consider this to be the world’s single most valuable automobile. If ever offered for sale, it would probably fetch something between $75 to 100 million.

Closed cars were also built on the 8C2900 chassis [show drawing and then the Shirley car] This car came to the USA after the War and won the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix race in 1947 – when it was ten years old!

In 1938, Alfa entered four 8C2900 cars in the famous Mille Miglia race, a 1000-mile road race around Italy, from Brescia to Rome and back. The cars finished 1st, 2nd, 4th and 9th, in a field of 200 cars. [show photos] This car is now owned by Ralph Lauren of Polo fame. It is probably the most desirable sports racing car in the world. The visual impact of the Mille Miglia spiders is perhaps best described in a 1973 article in Automobile Quarterly, in which the author unleashed a flood of superlatives to describe this stunning design:

“….it is a heady experience just to walk around this car and soak up the almost palpably aggressive look of it, but to note also the sensuous shapes beginning, ending and blending into one another. Lean, mean and devastatingly beautiful. It is, unmistakably, a masterpiece. A work of art.

“Just look at this car. Go ahead, look at it. Did you ever see anything so riotously rakish? So mean looking? So red? So Italian?…”

In 1938 another 8C2900 Alfa was bodied by Touring with a revolutionary aerodynamic shape to be run in the LeMans race, where the course has long straightaways and cars could run at their top speed for most of the race. [show photo of LeMans coupe, comment on slab sides, etc.]   [Show also the replica 6C Coupe] These were the first truly aerodynamic cars and changed the shape of automobiles forever.

[show Berlinetta drawing] In 1939 Touring designed a body for the Alfa 6C2500 Sport chassis and a small series were produced of about 20 cars. I was fortunate enough to own one [show picture]. We found this car in a barn near Elkhorn Wisconsin in 1990 and spent about four years restoring it. It was entered at Pebble Beach in 1998 and won the award as the “Most Elegant Closed Car” – the second highest award in the show. And here is another one of these cars, [photo of Petacci car] this one built for Claretta Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress. She and her brother tried to flee to Switzerland in the car at the end of the War and were captured and later shot along with Mussolini.

Also in 1939 [show photo] an elegant coupe was produced which became the progenitor for what later became known as the Gran Turismo or Grand Touring body design, or GT. A “GT” is a closed coupe (2 seats) to transport a man and a woman and their luggage at high speed and in great comfort on a long European tour. This car defined that formula and was the inspiration for all of the great Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamboghinis and other Italian GT cars which came along after the War.  And here is an open car with the same basic design, a cabriolet built for Mussolini.

[If time permits show first Ferraris and other postwar cars, the Aston Martin DB4 and the new Disco Volante design.]